On the way home Friday night from the Union Avenue Opera on North Union Boulevard, I landed in the middle of a beehive at the intersection of Euclid and Maryland avenues. The place is always busy, but on weekend evenings it's especially alive. However, this Friday the corner drew many more police officers than usual, including the chief, Sam Dotson.
Alderman Lyda Krewson was there; so were many worried longtime residents of the neighborhood. There were tourists from St. Louis County and beyond -- parents bringing their kids to college. Lots of folks were hanging out in the bars and outdoor cafes drinking up a storm. Gridlock-causing motorists, either just cruisin’ or looking for parking places or glimpses of civil disobedience, were in abundance.
Some members of this end-of-the-week congregation had no clue that demonstrators had blocked that intersection Thursday in response to the shooting death of 18-year-old Mansur Ball-Bey by police officers on Wednesday morning in the Fountain Park neighborhood. But other members of the crowd were curious, and some came in anticipation of a rerun of Thursday. Such is our desire to sit in the bleachers to watch the violence.
At Union Avenue, I’d seen its final show of the season, Richard Wagner’s epic drama “Götterdämmerung, The Twilight of the Gods.” This is the fourth in Wagner's monumental four-opera cycle, “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” and it was presented in a celebrated shaved-down version created by the British composer Jonathan Dove in 1990. It is "more intimate than heroic," said the British music critic Paul Griffiths, writing in The New York Times in 2000.
Over the years, Union Avenue has presented all four of this Ring’s component operas. By taking on this task and the responsibilities attached to it, the company performs not only an operatic but also a civic function of extraordinary importance now.
On the stage, the Wagnerian pantheon is eradicated. Out on the street, demonstrations that began a year ago continue in response to continuing shootings and killings of African Americans.
Condensed or not, the performance Friday night made connections of art and reality, opera and truth, as evident as they were stunning -- and frightening, too. The point is not to reflect on Union Avenue’s production in any great detail. It was good enough, though it had some obvious problems, such as a lack of balance. For example, the powerful voices of Brünnhilde (Alexandra LoBianco) and Gutrune (Rebecca Wilson) often effortlessly steamrolled over the singing of their male colleagues and even the vocal ensemble. A sampling of the costumes called to mind the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera,” a distraction in a work of profound seriousness. I never felt the visceral thrills I often have listening to this music and feeling its ecstatic power and its wont to absorb a listener into its mystical quarters.
But all that falls into the category of picking of nits. When removed to a universe far beyond, yet just next door to the opera house, into a place where conditions demand serious discussion and drastic remediation -- all that is beside the point. What matters is a small company’s commitment to taking on such challenging work. The commitment is entirely commendable, not because it sells tickets or stirs up publicity but because it is right and salutary to do so.
Living in chaos
Because now, “Götterdämmerung” can teach us a lot about life in times as troubled as any encountered in Wotan’s world, which, when observed carefully looks too much like ours for comfort. The operas of the Ring are all, bar none, about chaos, and moral frailty, and about greed and duplicity, and about the fact that inevitably appearances are deceiving, and what seems real and what seems important in fact are not.
This is important to understand now when nonsense is presented as truth, and where human lives are sacrificed unnecessarily and when greed beats out making sacrifices for the general good.
Now especially, these operas of the Ring are important to see and to discuss, because the entire Ring cycle and “Götterdämmerung” in particular reveal in extravagant and some times exaggerated language and byzantine metaphor one simple and apparently intractable fact. That is, the situation of the gods in Wotan's world and today in our world is a mess, not only in far away places such as Syria and Iraq and Ukraine but here in St. Louis and St. Louis County as well.
In his review of “Wagner and Philosophy,” Ralph Blumenau, retired head of the history department at Malvern College in England, reminds us that Wagner was an anarchist in the 30s and took such an active part in the 1839 Dresden uprising he had to flee to Switzerland. Various political intellectuals and philosophers contributed to his worldview during this time.
A particularly important one was Ludwig Feuerbach, who believed relationships should be based not on power but on love, an emotion we have sentimentalized almost to death. Feuerbach, Blumenau wrote, also held that “all religions are man-made: They convey no theological truths, but, when we create our own myths about the gods, we express the deepest truths about ourselves. This idea was also to influence Wagner for the rest of his life, and shapes the ideas in his operas.”
Feuerbach thus provides a sense of Wagner’s drive to create the multi-layered and often logically confounding myth of the Ring, and explores how we create the gods as projections of ourselves. The philosopher who introduced another, more desolating darkness to Wagner’s vision – one germane to this moment in the history of the world and the history of this region – was Arthur Schopenhauer.
“For Schopenhauer,” Blumenau writes, “art (and music as the highest of the arts) also has a liberating role – but for him, art did not liberate one from social oppression but from the world as a whole.
“Schopenhauer had a bleak and pessimistic view of the world, “Blumenau wrote. "We are dominated by an impersonal Will which relentlessly drives us to struggle against the sufferings of the world and which fills us with restless and unattainable longings.”
In the end, leaving anarchy and Switzerland behind, Wagner’s politics moved to the right, and his solution to the punishing problems of greed and violence and dishonesty was a massive conflagration.
The great god Wotan’s beloved daughter Brünnhilde dies in these flames, in the moving immolation scene. The Nibelungs’ golden ring’s curse – an instrument of evil akin to Schopenhauer’s notion of the tyrannical Will– ends when, just before her immolation, Brünnhilde claims it, and returns it to its source, the Rhine River, and to the protection of the Rhinemaidens. Concurrently, Valhalla itself – the home of these contributory gods of pathological mischiefs who stir chaos like soup – is consumed by fire as well.
It often seems this mad and murderous idea might be the best thing for humankind -- to blank the cosmic slate and to start over. But as we face of murderous, genocidal behavior all around, we (or most of us anyway) recognize the horror of that idea, its gross indiscriminate immorality and its arrogance on an inconceivably damning scale. But we can look at and listen to the lessons that art can teach us about new beginnings and salvation.
It is interesting that two of the most important sources of a dynamic and socially engaged drive to ameliorate social problems in this region come not from the civic establishment but from arts enterprises, particularly opera companies: Union Avenue and Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Opera – the most artistically inclusive form of all the arts – has the potential to help us realize what is brought to the stage reveals our lives in toto not only through poetry, and myth, the visual arts, drama and comedy and music but also through a regular feature of serious operas -- clearly etched representations of chaos.
We seem not to be able to learn much by looking into the faces of poverty and disease with empathy, and we look away in horror and denial to avoid confronting the bodies of people who have been marginalized -- men and women and children -- littering the landscape.
However, it is not fanciful to hope we are better than that, and to open our minds to the possibility of learning abstractions of great art, where beauty is born into the same family that produces suffering.
“Götterdämmerung,” created by a megalomaniacal genius trapped in the grips of moral ambiguity and gargantuan needs, proclaims a message of possibility: that evil is recognizable and that fairness, equity and broadly defined goodness are achievable by mortals themselves, not through divine intervention but by human will. In this opera, there is the suggestion that such qualities linger in the ashes of affliction and are discoverable.
It might be well indeed for us to poke around in the remains of the fires, one that signaled the twilight of the gods and others that burn in streets near where we live.